Format-busting comedian Garry Shandling dead of apparent heart attack at 66
LOS ANGELES >> While Garry Shandling's fellow comedians fought to host a late-night show, he brushed away the prospect.
"I would not do a show where you just sit and talk to somebody," the humorist said in 1993 when he was courted by NBC to succeed David Letterman on "Late Night."
He'd blown up the format with "The Larry Sanders Show," the HBO series about the making of a fictional talk show that drew on his own neurotic self-absorption — and that of Hollywood — for exquisite satire.
Doctors said that Shandling, 66, died Thursday of an apparent heart attack, according to Alan Nierob, his spokesman. Shandling, who was taken to a hospital after paramedics were dispatched to his Brentwood home, had no history of heart trouble, Nierob said.
Coroner's Lt. David Smith said it appeared Shandling died of natural causes but an official cause of death determination had not yet been made. No autopsy was planned, but officials would determine Shandling's cause of death based on medical records and his medical history.
His death prompted an outpouring of respect and affection from the comedy community.
"Garry Shandling was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known," Billy Crystal tweeted. Steve Martin lauded Shandling's "beautifully unpredictable mind" in a Twitter post.
Shandling had a face and voice made for comedy, with pillowy lips that delivered punchlines in a tone that verged on whining.
In a 2009 interview with The Associated Press, he explained his perspective on his art.
"The answer isn't gonna be in the facts," he said. "It's gonna be in intuition. That's how I work creatively. I'm always teaching people that the answer to that creative question is right here, in the room, between us here."
More to the point, it was dealing with the questions he confronted in himself.
Born on Nov. 29, 1949 in Chicago, Shandling was raised in Tucson, Ariz. On arriving in Los Angeles as a young adult, it was a short hop from a brief stint in the advertising business to comedy writing and stand-up.
Then in the 1980s, he began to experiment with TV comedy, and to toy with the sitcom form, with his first series, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," a Showtime project that made no bones about its inherently artificial nature: The actors in this otherwise standard domestic comedy routinely broke the fourth wall to comment on what they were up to. Even the theme song began with the explanatory lyrics, "The theme to Garry's show...."
Then, in August 1992, Shandling created for HBO his comic masterpiece with "The Larry Sanders Show," which starred him as an egomaniacal late-night TV host with an angst-ridden show-biz life behind the scenes.
It was just three months after Johnny Carson had retired from "The Tonight Show," where Shandling had appeared as a stand-up and occasional Carson stand-in. It seemed a wry but deeply felt homage to the King of Late Night.
But it was more. "Larry Sanders" proved to be an act of courage, a brave effort led by someone portraying a character dangerously close to himself. As Larry, Shandling dug deep to confront his own demons, and did it brilliantly as the series teetered between dual realities: public and private; make-believe and painfully true.
Real-life celebrities appeared as guests on Larry's show-within-the-show, and also interacted with him "off the air."
David Duchovny, agreeing to come on the show, also came on to Larry romantically once he got the chance.
Jim Carrey delivered a rip-roaring comic tribute to his host on the final broadcast, then, during a commercial break, turned on him in rage over a long-ago slight.
"Are you doing a bit, now?" asked Larry, perplexed.
"We're OFF the air," Carrey hissed. "This is real life now."
The show explored the fuzzy distinction between TV life and real life, and the loneliness of someone at its crossing. The closest thing Larry had to friends were his chronically needy announcer Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) and his Napoleonic producer, Artie (Rip Torn). Together the three actors were among TV's best-ever trios.
"Garry redesigned the wheel of comedy and he was the kindest and funniest of Geniuses," Tambor said in a statement.
After "Sanders" ended in 1998, Shandling's few public appearances included hosting the Emmys Awards in 2000 and 2004. On the latter occasion, he spotted Donald Trump in the audience and congratulated the billionaire developer for hosting the Emmy-nominated "The Apprentice."
"Nice to see a man who's paid his dues, worked hard," Shandling said. "We all know what it feels like to have to build 80-story condos and gambling casinos just to get our foot in the door in show business."
Shandling's films included "Hurlyburly" in 1998, "What Planet Are You From?" in 2000 and "Zoolander" in 2001.
Jamie Masada, owner of comedy club the Laugh Factory, said he met with Shandling a few weeks ago and the comedian appeared healthy.
"I always said he was a doctor of soul. He had a lot of kindness in him. He was a very generous person," Masada said.
Shandling became one of the rich and famous targeted by private eye Anthony Pellicano, who was sentenced to prison in 2008 on convictions of racketeering and more than six dozen other counts, including conspiracy, wire fraud and wiretapping in the Hollywood wiretaps case.
Pellicano was accused of wiretapping stars and bribing police officers to run names of people, including Shandling, through law enforcement databases.
While Shandling never married, his most public romance was with "Sanders" co-star and fiancee Linda Doucett, who played Hank's comely assistant in the series' early seasons.
Doucett sued Shandling after he fired her following their breakup in the mid-1990s, receiving a reported $1 million settlement, The New York Times reported in 2006.
Details on survivors and funeral plans were not immediately available.
AP television writers Frazier Moore in New York and Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this story.
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